Choreographer Kyle Abraham’s ‘Radio Show’ weaves together pictures of loss

A local radio station goes off the air. A parent is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. These unrelated events might seem curious subjects for a dance — especially for the same dance. Consider it a measure of Kyle Abraham’s depth of imagination that he can weave two disparate examples of loss into a picture of dislocation as immediately visceral as it is elusive.

“The Radio Show,” Abraham’s well-constructed and exquisitely danced work that his company, Abraham.In.Motion, performed at Dance Place over the weekend, finds the poetic notes shared by both misfortunes. These lie in the loss of voice, the way the demise of a beloved radio station can silence the soundtrack of your life, and end the daily companionship of trusted DJs, even if you’re only having a one-way mental conversation. And anyone who has seen a loved one fade away in the grip of dementia or another degenerative disease knows the widening gulf of emptiness that comes to replace the living connection.

Abraham, a Pittsburgh native, drew on personal experience for this 2010 work, with which he marked his much-anticipated Washington debut. (Happily, he’s made a three-year commitment of annual performances at Dance Place, so we’ll see more from this promising 34-year-old.) His father has suffered from Alzheimer’s for a decade, but in recent years language impairments have entered the picture, too. And in 2009, Pittsburgh’s WAMO (106.7 FM) ended its decades-long run as an urban radio station. The music stopped, the talking stopped — and Abraham had a dance.

What a dance, and what a dancer. Abraham, who channeled his father’s living prison in this piece, is a mesmerizing soloist. He has taken elements of bedrock modern dance, hip hop and various street styles, perhaps even a little Memphis jook dance, and refashioned them into surging currents of abandon. As his restless feet padded out a hiccuping rhythm, he twisted this way and that, melted suddenly to the floor and rebounded just as quick. Yet for all his physical electricity, he’s hemmed in, chafing as if tied to an invisible chain.

For his excellent ensemble dancers, Abraham created passages of virtuosic drama — high kicks, full-flung leaps — but also simpler, secretive movements. As others swarm about her, one dancer hangs her head, bends over and stands like an unresponsive lump for many minutes. Soon the others have mirrored her. Are they, too, stilled by disease or depression, or by the burden of being around someone who is?

That sense of stop-and-go, of interruptions and broken connections, fills “The Radio Show.” Yet though there is plenty of introspection, there is also self-mockery. One dancer generously sprays her hair with the hyper-sultry come-hitheriness of an Obsession perfume ad. Amid patches of static and bits of R&B and hip-hop hits, the recorded snippets of radio talk-show hosts offering earnest, well-intentioned advice on, say, how to keep your man are witty and heartwarming.

Sarah Cubbage’s costumes underscored the idea of keeping up a brave front while falling apart inside: The dancers wore T-shirts with the backs cut out, framing the muscles, and loose, high-waisted trousers. The pants helped the dancing look gorgeous; the shirts offered a window on the effort. Dan Scully’s lighting design enhanced the nostalgic mood.

Loss, abandonment and thudding silence all come together in the work’s ending, which left me stunned: We hear the refrain from “Never Can Say Goodbye” ringing lightly, a ghostly whisper. The dancers stand quite still, then one flips her hair and walks off. In the silence, Abraham continues to move, reaching toward a beckoning light for the echoes that still call him.

As this fascinating artist reminds us, the body contains its own clarity. That’s an anchoring bit of consolation for those times when we may see nothing but darkness, hear nothing but static.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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